Better known by his stage name "The Amazing Randi", James Randi has made it his quest to "debunk psychic nonsense, disprove paranormal fakers, and squash claims of pseudoscience in order to bring the truth to the forefront." Randi worked as a popular magician most of his life and earned international fame in 1972 when he accused the famous psychic Uri Geller of being a fraud and challenged him to prove otherwise. In 1996 Randi founded The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) a non-profit organization whose mission includes "educating the public and the media on the dangers of accepting unproven claims, and to support research into paranormal claims in controlled scientific experimental conditions." He began offering $1000 in 1964 to anyone who could demonstrate proof of the paranormal. That amount has grown over the years, and the foundation's prize for such proof is now $1M. Around 1000 people have tried to claim the prize so far without success. Randi has agreed to take a break from busting ghostbusters and giving psychic healers a taste of their own medicine in order to answer your questions. As usual, you're invited to ask as many questions as you'd like, but please divide them, one question per post.
Zothecula writes "Taking a two-month-old in for vaccination shots and watching them get stuck with six needles in rapid succession can be painful for child and parent alike. If the work of an MIT team of researchers pans out, those needles may be thing of the past thanks to a new dissolvable polymer film that allows the vaccination needle to be replaced with a patch. This development will not only make vaccinations less harrowing, but also allow for developing and delivering vaccines for diseases too dangerous for conventional techniques." The patch was designed with delivering DNA-based vaccines in mind. Thus far efforts to use DNA to generate more robust and safe vaccines has failed thanks to the immune system destroying them; the polymer film embeds itself in your skin and slowly dissolves, protecting the DNA in the process.
Lasrick writes "This article starts with an interesting anecdote: 'In 1998, President Bill Clinton read a novel about biological warfare that deeply disturbed him. In fact, the story reportedly kept him up all night. It’s one of the reasons that Clinton became personally invested in protecting the United States from bioterrorism threats. The book was The Cobra Event (Preston, 1998), a sci-fi thriller by journalist and novelist Richard Preston that told of a mad scientist who brewed a lethal, genetically engineered virus in his New York City apartment. Preston’s tale highlighted the potential ease with which individuals or small groups with access to advanced bioweapons capabilities could launch attacks on major US cities.1 After reading The Cobra Event, Clinton called several advisory meetings and ordered classified assessments and simulation exercises to examine the threat depicted in the story. As a result of these deliberations, by the end of his administration Clinton had increased funding for biodefense preparedness efforts fourfold, to more than $400 million per year.' The article goes on to describe the two trajectories of bioweapons threats, and puts them both in perspective. It may or may not calm everyone who's ever spent a sleepless night after reading one of the many bioterrorism novels"
dp619 writes "Ross Gardler, of Apache Fame, has written a guest post on the Outercurve Foundation blog advocating that universities accelerate the research process through a collaborative sharing and development of research software while examining reasons why many have been reluctant to publish their source code. Quoting: 'These highly specialized software solutions are not rarely engineered for reuse. They are often hacks to answer a specific question quickly. ... What many academic researchers fail to understand is that this specialization problem is not unique to research projects. Most software developers will seek to provide an adequate solution to their specific problem, as quickly as possible. They don't seek to build a perfect, all-purpose, tool set that can be reused in every conceivable circumstance. They simply solve the problem at hand and move on to the next one. The difference is that open source developers will do this incremental problem solving using shared code. They will share that code in incremental steps rather than wait until they've built the complete system they need but is too specific for others to use. Other people will reuse and improve on the initial solution, perhaps generalizing it a little in the process. There is no need to share the details of why one needs a 'green widget' nor is there any reason to prevent someone modifying it so it can be either a 'green widget' or a 'blue widget.'"
coondoggie writes "Stanford researchers said this week they had used a supercomputer with 1,572,864 compute cores to predict the noise generated by a supersonic jet engine. 'Computational fluid dynamics simulations test all aspects of a supercomputer. The waves propagating throughout the simulation require a carefully orchestrated balance between computation, memory and communication. Supercomputers like Sequoia divvy up the complex math into smaller parts so they can be computed simultaneously. The more cores you have, the faster and more complex the calculations can be. And yet, despite the additional computing horsepower, the difficulty of the calculations only becomes more challenging with more cores. At the one-million-core level, previously innocuous parts of the computer code can suddenly become bottlenecks.'"
sciencehabit writes "Researchers have identified three genetic mutations that appear to have helped humans survive in the frigid climate of Siberia over the last 25,000 years. One helps the body's fat stores directly produce heat rather than producing chemical energy for muscle movements or brain functions, a process called 'nonshivering thermogenesis.' Another is involved in the contraction of smooth muscle, key to shivering and the constriction of blood vessels to avoid heat loss. And the third is implicated in the metabolism of fats, especially those in meat and dairy products—a staple of the fat-laden diets of Arctic peoples."
sciencehabit writes "Each year, hundreds of millions of metric tons of dust, water, and humanmade pollutants make their way into the atmosphere, often traveling between continents on jet streams. Now a new study confirms that some microbes make the trip with them, seeding the skies with billions of bacteria and other organisms—and potentially affecting the weather. What's more, some of these high-flying organisms may actually be able to feed while traveling through the clouds, forming an active ecosystem high above the surface of the Earth."
chicksdaddy writes "Google cemented its reputation as the squarest company around Monday (pun intended), offering prizes totaling Pi Million Dollars — that's right: $3.14159 million greenbacks — in its third annual Pwnium hacking contest, to be held at the CanSecWest conference on March 7 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Google will pay $110,000 for a browser or system level compromise delivered via a web page to a Chrome user in guest mode or logged in. The company will pay $150,000 for any compromise that delivers 'device persistence' delivered via a web page, the company announced on the chromium blog. 'We believe these larger rewards reflect the additional challenge involved with tackling the security defenses of Chrome OS, compared to traditional operating systems,' wrote Chris Evans of Google's Security Team."
The recipient of nineteen honorary doctorates, and honors from three U.S. presidents, Ray Kurzweil's accolades are almost too many to list. A prolific inventor, Kurzweil created the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments. His book, The Singularity Is Near, was a New York Times best seller. and is considered one of the best books about futurism and transhumanism ever written. Mr. Kurzweil was hired by Google in December as Director of Engineering to "work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing." He has agreed to take a short break from creating and predicting the future in order to answer your questions. As usual, you're invited to ask as many questions as you'd like, but please divide them, one question per post.
MarkWhittington writes "With two private companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, proposing to set up asteroid mining, the prospect of accessing limitless wealth beyond the Earth has caused a bit of media speculation about what that could mean. The question arises, could asteroid resources be used to create the greatest dreams — and perhaps the worst nightmares — of science fiction?"
Iranian state TV is claiming that the country has successfully sent a monkey into space and back, bringing Iran one step closer to its goal of a manned space flight. According to the report, the rocket named Pishgam, or Pioneer in Farsi, reached a height of 120km. From the article: "Iran has long said it seeks to send an astronaut into space as part of its ambitious aerospace program, including plans for a new space center announced last year. In 2010, Iran said it launched an Explorer rocket into space carrying a mouse, a turtle and worms."
jjp9999 writes "Recent findings published on Jan. 27 in the journal Nature Neuroscience may inspire you to get some proper sleep. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that REM sleep plays a key role in moving short term memories from the hippocampus (where short-term memories are stored) to the prefrontal cortex (where long-term memories are stored), and that degeneration of the frontal lobe as we grow older may play a key role in forgetfulness. 'What we have discovered is a dysfunctional pathway that helps explain the relationship between brain deterioration, sleep disruption and memory loss as we get older – and with that, a potentially new treatment avenue,' said UC Berkeley sleep researcher Matthew Walker."
Living in dense cities makes for certain efficiencies: being able to walk or take mass transit to work, living in buildings with (at least potentially) efficient HVAC systems, and more. That's why cities have been lauded in recent years for their (relatively) low environmental impact. But it seems at least one aspect of city life has an environmental effect felt at extreme distances from the cities themselves: waste heat. All those tightly packed sources of heat, from cars to banks of AC units, result in temperature changes not just directly (and locally) but by affecting weather systems surrounding the source city. From the article: "The released heat is changing temperatures in areas more than 1,000 miles away (1609 kilometers). It is warming parts of North America by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) and northern Asia by as much as 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius), while cooling areas of Europe by a similar amount, scientists report in the journal Nature Climate Change. The released heat (dubbed waste heat), it seems, is changing atmospheric circulation, including jet streams — powerful narrow currents of wind that blow from west to east and north to south in the upper atmosphere. This impact on regional temperatures may explain a climate puzzle of sorts: why some areas are having warmer winters than predicted by climate models, the researchers said. In turn, the results suggest this phenomenon should be accounted for in models forecasting global warming."
Numerous news outlets are reporting the findings of a study from the Research Council of Norway — a government agency — which concludes that (in Bloomberg's version) "After the planet's average surface temperature rose through the 1990s, the increase has almost leveled off at the level of 2000, while ocean water temperature has also stabilized." The New York Times' Dot Earth blog offers some reasons to be skeptical of the findings.
An anonymous reader writes "Microsoft Research and UN scientists have teamed up to build the first general-purpose computer model of whole ecosystems across the entire world. The project was detailed in a recent Nature article [note: yet another expensively paywalled original article] titled 'Ecosystems: Time to model all life on Earth.'"